Through the Peepers of Others: Part 3 of 3 – Focusing the Feedback

We’ve talked about the importance of letting others read what you’ve written. We’ve talked about the way in which an author can make use of alpha and beta readers. Now it’s time to discuss the trickiest part of the process. Now we get to deal with the chaotic landslide of feedback.

And you should be hoping for a landslide. That was the point of using your alpha and beta readers. This feedback can come in a variety of forms. From notes they’ve taken for you (more common and necessary from beta readers) to notes you’ve taken yourself as you discuss the work with them (most commonly performed with alpha readers). Today, I want to focus on beta readers and their feedback because this is where you’ll receive the most volume. It’s also where the most detailed critiques will occur. But first, a note on alpha readers particularly those found in critique groups.

Writing critique groups are a great way to get your writing in front of others however, the efficacy and quality of this form of critique can vary, a lot. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of multiple critique groups over the past few years and each was useful in its own way. One was a group where five fixed members attended once a week. We were thus familiar with each other’s work and with each other’s style of critique, making the task of analysing that feedback much more easy and consistent.

Another group I attended had a core cast of regulars plus a rotating cast of writers each week. This meant that, while always great company, not every piece of feedback was useful. This also boiled down to familiarity or a lack of it, both my familiarity with their personalities, preferences, and critique skills and their familiarity with my work. The feedback from a group like this can be and has been very valuable to me but I had to work harder to evaluate their critiques. It’s much more difficult to establish the necessary trust, though with some of the regular members, it was there in spades.

Okay, back to beta readers. Here’s is where the “fun” really begins and by “fun” I mean work. I’ve received anywhere from one to ten pages of notes from beta readers in the past and tend to provide between five and ten or more pages when beta reading for others. That’s a lot to sift through and sifting we must do. (Note: This volume reflects beta reading for a novel sized piece.) 

You see, no matter how skilled and thorough your readers are, no matter how much trust you have established with them, they’re still human. As humans, we love our opinions. Our opinions worm their way into everything including those notes you’re writing for your friend which you totally thought were objective. There will always be some degree of subjectivity in the critique you receive. It’s up to you to decide what’s valid.

I’m no mind reader. How am I supposed to figure out what critiques are valid?

That’s a great question with a simple answer. Multiple readers.

In the last post in this series, I encouraged you to seek out multiple beta readers. When it’s time for me to use beta readers, I tend to send my manuscripts to at least eight people, hoping that six will complete the task. For my next manuscript, I’m planning on upping that to around ten. Other authors I know have used as little as four and as many as twelve. The reason for multiple readers is that it guarantees you’ll receive multiple points of view and multiple opinions in your slush pile of feedback.

When I choose my readers, I try to pick a varied group. Some love the genre I write, others not so much. Some are analytical and realistic, others are much more  comfortable with fantasy and the fictitious. By creating a mixed group of readers, I’m able to use their differences as a filter. Here’s how.

If one person in my heterogeneous beta reader group dislikes a concept, character, etc. but everyone else was fine with it, then chances are, it was their opinion talking and not an actual problem. If multiple people within the group had a problem with some element of the story, then it’s very clearly a problem. A problem that I can now pinpoint and fix. A problem that my own filters can’t ignore.  It’s as easy as that.

As I’ve said before, when I say easy, I really mean it’s a lot of hard work but that hard work is streamlined by the system used above. The same system can be used with alpha readers if you are in a group setting. Obviously a single alpha reader provides a single point of view.  If you use a single alpha reader, make sure you trust them. A lot.

I’m going to leave you with one final suggestion. Alpha and beta read for others and do it often. The notes I get from my own readers are incredibly helpful but not as helpful as the self critiquing skills I’ve gained by reading for others. I can evaluate myself with so much more accuracy now that I have experience doing it for others. I can’t stress the value of this enough. Plus, if you’re willing to read for others, chances are, they’ll read for you.

Happy writing everyone.